An island in the Mississippi River across from Alton was the site of one of Abraham Lincoln's less celebrated adventures.
"I don't think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday." — Abraham Lincoln
Sixteen years before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, one of our most revered presidents was challenged to a duel. On September 22, 1842, Lincoln met James Shields on an island to settle an affair of honor. What began in deadly earnest ended in laughter.
Enraged by a sarcastic article supposedly written by Lincoln, Shields demanded justice. As the person being challenged, Lincoln chose the weapons: cavalry broadswords. While waiting for the duel to begin, Lincoln used his sword to cut off a branch high overhead, making his advantage in height obvious. The issue was settled peacefully. Afterwards, Lincoln and Shields shared jokes at a tavern on the Alton levee.
"Shields is a fool as well as a liar. With him truth is out of the question; and as for getting a good, bright, passable lie out of him, you might as well try to strike a fire from a cake of tallow." —excerpt of a letter written by Mary Todd and Julia Jayne
Local newspapers harshly condemned the duel, calling for legal action against
Lincoln and Shields.
During the Civil War, Shields served as a general in the Union Army, and Lincoln spoke glowingly about his service.
The infamous article was not written by Lincoln, but by none other than his future wife, Mary Todd, and the future wife of Lyman Trumbull, a political ally.
Another island in the Mississippi played a role in a Civil War tragedy. Continue along the walking tour of Alton's historic past to learn more.